Solar Tribune

What is the Green New Deal and What Could it Mean for Solar Energy?


In a speech at the 1932 Democratic Convention, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “new deal for the American people,” and once elected he kept his word. The New Deal put millions of people back to work and provided essential social services to the most deprived and vulnerable. It also permanently altered public perceptions about the proper role of government in the life of the American people.

The backlash against the New Deal among conservatives and corporate interests has been continuous. Nevertheless, the sterling reputation of the New Deal remains largely intact. Aware of this fact, environmentalist groups and progressive insurgents in Congress have now adapted the term to promote a fundamental restructuring of the U.S. economy.

The ‘Green New Deal’ is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C.. If it ever leads to actual legislation, it could dramatically transform the prospects for solar energy. The future of solar could be meteoric if the backers of the Green New Deal are successful in their campaign for change.

The Green New Deal Explained

Architects of the Green New Deal propose substantial public investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean transportation, green jobs and a modernized infrastructure. They are calling for a 100-percent conversion to renewable energy sometime within the next 10-30 years.

As justification for such an ambitious plan, they point to an alarming report issued in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Scientists with the organization give humanity only about a decade to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent to stave off a climate catastrophe.

In the spirit of the original New Deal, they also assert that a Green New Deal is necessary to revive the sluggish and stagnant U.S. economy. They claim investments in renewable energy and decarbonization will eventually create tens of millions of good paying jobs, many more than will be lost when fossil fuels become extinct.

With support from advocacy groups like the Sunrise Movement, progressive Congressional Democrats are openly championing the Green New Deal. Newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking a leading role in these efforts. As she explains:

“Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary – aka a Green New Deal – to get it done.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity has helped vault the Green New Deal into the spotlight. But the idea has been circulating in political circles for the past several years. It has been supported by many prominent political leaders, including former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders.

At the grassroots level, a 2018 public opinion poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found overwhelming support for a Green New Deal. Overall, 81 percent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” approved of the idea. This included 92 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Independents and 64 percent of Republicans. However, in the same survey 96 percent admitted they’d heard little or no discussion about the Green New Deal before being asked about it. This suggests they were responding to the catchiness of the phrase rather than its specific policy goals.

Source: Yale Program on Climate Communication

Solar Energy in a Deep Green Economy

The poll numbers for the Green New Deal are good, but the numbers for renewable energy are even better.

A utility-industry trade group recently commissioned a poll to gauge consumer attitudes about renewables. Much to their chagrin, they found that 70 percent of the American public want 100-percent renewable energy as quickly as possible. Seventy-four percent want solar cast in the leading role in that transition—a role it is more than prepared to handle.

Solar panels currently account for about two percent of the country’s annual energy generation. But this number could be expanded dramatically, without any technological innovations or changes in building construction practices.

At the present time, the United States has approximately eight billion square meters of roof space that could support solar panel installations. If each square meter were covered with panels, the total electricity generated could replace about 40 percent of the power currently purchased from utilities.

But this likely understates the potential of rooftop solar. Changes in new home construction practices could increase available roof space significantly. In addition, many existing roofs could be remodeled for solar compatibility. Increases in solar cell efficiency could boost production even further, and such increases could be expected with a significant influx of Green New Deal R&D funding.

Utility projects currently account for about 60 percent of annual increases in U.S. solar capacity. The growth potential of such installations does not depend on available roof space, so the prospects for their expansion in a New Deal scenario would be immense. Costs for industrial-scale battery systems like the Tesla Powerpack are dropping steadily, making solar grid projects that require substantial energy storage more affordable.

And then there’s community solar and microgrids. These projects are potential entry points for renters and homeowners without adequate roof space for independent solar panels.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Community solar projects and microgrids only account for about five percent of installations at present. Consequently, their potential for growth is likely higher than the rooftop residential option. Solar initiatives that share costs and access would be all the rage during a period of rapid solar panel deployment, suitable as they are for investors with limited resources.

A large-scale conversion to renewables would likely create millions of new jobs. It would mean a massive reversal of fortune for the U.S. solar energy industry, which has lost about 80 percent of its solar panel market share to Asian competitors. The Green New Deal would be a boon to domestic solar manufacturers, whose pool of potential customers would spread from coast-to-coast.

But Can It Be Done?

The Green New Deal proposes a 100-percent conversion to renewable energy, which raises an obvious question: is such a conversion actually feasible?

The answer to this question is ‘yes,’ according to a team of European energy researchers.  In a study discussed in the September 2018 edition of Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, they found no technological barriers preventing a conversion to 100-percent renewable energy.  They concluded that solar, wind and hydroelectric energies could provide the bulk of the power needed to make such a change possible.

According to a study co-author Brian Vad Mathiesen, from Aalborg University in Denmark:

“There are some persistent myths that 100 percent renewable systems are not possible. Our contribution deals with these myths one-by-one, using all the latest research.

But technological and political feasibility are divergent concepts. From a political standpoint, the future of the Green New Deal remains very much in doubt.

Legislators will face enormous practical, ideological and institutional obstacles as they attempt to make the Green New Deal a reality. Advocates may need more time to educate the public about the upside of the Green New Deal, before a critical mass of support can be reached. They may need significant electoral success over multiple election cycles, winning seats while openly advocating for Green New Deal policies at the local, state and federal levels. Ultimately, they will need to garner the support of economists, academics, entrepreneurs, well-heeled investors, think-tank analysts and other thought leaders. This support may come, once specific policy recommendations are made and the value of Green New Deal investments become clear.

Even beyond the dynamics of the usual left-right paradigm, which repeatedly stifles bold initiatives of all sorts, our political system often seems designed to protect the established order, regardless of the wisdom or necessity of change. The prospect of a global climate catastrophe, combined with the chronic under-performance of the U.S. economy, may be enough to disrupt politics as usual, especially if public support for a Green New Deal stays strong as further details about it emerge.

A Society on the Clock

If the Green New Deal moves from semi-utopian dream to earth-shaking reality, solar energy technology will be front-and-center during its implementation. If the lumbering and destructive fossil fuel beast is finally to be slain, it may be solar energy that strikes the fatal blow.

Those are big ‘ifs,’ and perhaps unimaginable to many in our current political reality. But if the scientists at the IPCC are right, the survival of society as we know it may be at stake.

Cover image: Common Dreams

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